The United States pledged Tuesday (April 11, 2023) to defend the Philippines in the South China Sea as the two historic allies launched their largest joint military maneuvers to counter China’s influence in the region.
Live ammunition firing in the South China Sea
Some 18,000 soldiers, about double last year, take part in the annual two-week exercises dubbed “Balikatan” (“Side by side” in Filipino). For the first time, the operations will include live ammunition firing in the South China Sea, almost all of which Beijing claims.
The joint maneuvers come as China conducted extensive military drills around Taiwan from Saturday to Monday, simulating targeted strikes and a total island blockade, to protest a visit to the United States by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing. -Wen.
These Chinese exercises officially ended on Monday, but Taiwan again detected several Chinese warships and aircraft near its territory on Tuesday.
“Unwavering” US support for the Philippines
At a rare joint press conference in Washington, US foreign and defense chiefs Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin and their Filipino counterparts stressed the strength of their alliance.
Antony Blinken spoke in particular of “the unwavering support of the United States for the Philippines against any intimidation or coercion, including in the South China Sea.”
For his part, Lloyd Austin indicated that new maneuvers would take place in the South China Sea “later this year” and will include other countries.
“Balikatan” plans to land helicopters on a Philippine island off the northern end of the main island of Luzon, about 300 km from Taiwan.
Manila wants to improve its relations with Washington
“To protect our sovereign territory, we really have to practice taking back an island that was taken from us,” Colonel Michael Logico, spokesman for the Philippine armed forces, told reporters after the ceremony marking the start of maneuvers in a military camp in Manila.
This is the first time these exercises have taken place under the mandate of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who seeks to improve relations with Washington, damaged by his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
In recent months, Manila and Washington have relaunched their joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea and agreed to increase the American military presence in the Philippines.
Under the deal, US troops can use four different Philippine military bases, including a naval base not far from Taiwan.
Strategic proximity to Taiwan
Proximity to Taiwan could make the Philippines a key partner for the United States should China invade the democratic island it considers part of its territory.
After the US-Philippines agreement on the bases, China accused the United States of “endangering regional peace and stability.”
“Countries in this part of the world must preserve their strategic independence, and firmly resist the mentality of cold war and block confrontation,” Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian protested last week.
“Balikatan” mobilizes 12,200 American soldiers, 5,400 Filipinos, and just over a hundred Australians.
The exercises will notably simulate an amphibious landing on Palawan island, west of the archipelago, near the Spratly Islands claimed by China and the Philippines.
Patriot missiles and Himar systems
The US military will also use Patriot missiles, considered one of the best air defense systems in the world, and the Himars precision rocket system, which helped Ukrainian forces fight off Russian invaders.
The two armies had initially planned live ammunition firing at sea off the northern province of Ilocos Norte, about 355 kilometers off the southern coast of Taiwan. But that drill will eventually take place in the South China Sea, Philippine Army Major General Marvin Licudin said.
The initial site was “not sufficiently prepared” to unload the necessary equipment, he justified.
The new site is less than 300 km east of the Scarborough Reef, which Beijing and Manila dispute.
The exercises will improve “tactics, techniques and procedures in a wide range of military operations,” said Colonel Medel Aguilar, spokesman for the Philippine military.